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Artillery: Too Late and Too Much
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October 22, 2007: The U.S. Air Force has produced an innovative dud with its new SDB (small diameter bomb). Turns out that while the SDB was being developed, a lot of cheaper competition showed up. Work began on the 250 pound SDB smart bomb, seven years ago. It was set to enter service in 2006, and did so. But the only aircraft equipped to drop it is the F-15E. The SDB was tested in the F-22 (PHOTO), but there are no plans to deploy F-22s carrying SBD, for several years.


SDB (small diameter bomb) is a completely new smart bomb design, weighing only 250 pounds. This weapon has a shape that's more like that of a missile than a bomb (70 inches long, 190 millimeters in diameter), with the guidance system built in. The smaller blast from the SDB is still pretty substantial (51 pounds of explosives). A new SDB design has a Focused Lethality Munition (FLM) warhead, which reduces the number of metal fragments created when the bomb explodes, and increases the blast effect. This is meant to reduce casualties to nearby civilians. But there are cheaper solutions to the $50,000 SDB.


Basically, if you add high precision to a bomb or missile, you increase its cost by $25-50,000. But while cost is a consideration, it's not the only one. You need just enough explosives to do the job. Too much bang, and you just endanger your own people. More important is availability. The infantry need their explosion when they need it, not when the air force gets around to it. Thus the army prefers to rely on precision weapons they control. One of the first, widely successful precision weapons to show up was the fifty pound TOW anti-tank missile. It has a 13 pound warhead, and, when wars broke out, was mainly used for taking out rooms in buildings where enemy gunmen were hiding. It was a TOW that got Saddam Husseins two sons four years ago. Every mech infantry unit has plenty of TOW missiles, and very few enemy tanks to use them on. So the TOW has become a very popular precision weapon for the ground troops. Since the 1990s, a more portable ground combat missile, and just as accurate as TOW, came along in the form of the 26 pound Javelin (PHOTO), with its nine pound warhead. These two missiles are expensive, with TOW costing $25,000 each, and Javelin $75,000.


For a smaller bang, there's the AT4 rocket launcher, and its four pound warhead. It's not laser guided, and you have to be pretty close to use it. But at the normal ranges its used (a hundred meters or so), it's very accurate, and it's cheap ($2,700). The LAW is similar, smaller (2.2 pound warhead) and cheaper ($2,000).


Helicopters and UAVs use Hellfire missiles, which weigh 100 pounds, and have a 20 pound warhead. A little less than half of a missile warhead is explosives. Hellfire is laser guided, and good for taking out vehicles full of bad guys, or small buildings. Hellfire costs $50,000 each. For about the same price you can use the 44 pound Viper Strike, and its four pound warhead. Even cheaper ($25,000 each), and smaller, are the new, laser guided 70mm rockets. There weigh 25 pounds and have a six pound warhead. The Viper Strike is a laser guided glide bomb that basically comes straight down. The 70mm rocket has a range of about six kilometers.


The army also has 155mm GPS guided 155mm shells (Excalibur ) . Each hundred pound shell has about 20 pounds of explosives (PHOTO). This makes for a bigger bang than Hellfire or Tow, but much less than smart bombs. There's also a 227mm MLRS GPS rocket (or GMLRS). But this carries over 150 pounds of explosives. About half the bang of a 500 pound JDAM. The GPS guided 155mm shell and MLRS rocket each cost over $50,000 each.


The big advantage of these GPS artillery munitions is that they are available to the troops 24/7, and the need for fewer rounds per mission means there are fewer problems with running out, or low, on supplies.


Price is not really a decisive factor when it comes to these weapons. The whole point of smart (much more accurate) munitions is to reduce the number of explosions, and to only blow up what needs to be destroyed. The proliferation of rockets, smart bombs and missiles, from those with a pound of explosives (LAW) to 500 pound bombs (with 280 pounds), gives troops a lot of flexibility on the battlefield. This makes American troops much more lethal, and greatly reduces friendly, and civilian, casualties.


Although the air force had smart (GPS guided) bombs since the late 1990s, these came in only two sizes; half ton and one ton. This proved to be too much blast for urban fighting. The need for less firepower compelled the air force to quickly modify its GPS guidance kit to fit on a 500 pound bomb. But that's still 280 pounds of explosives. The troops wanted precision, and less bang.


In response, the air force (actually, the navy) developed a 500 pound bomb with all but 30 pounds of the explosives removed. All these JDAM smart bombs cost less than $30,000 each. But JDAM requires an air force or navy jet to drop it, and an air force ground controller to call it in. It's much more convenient to call in army artillery, for either a GMLRS (if you need a big bang, one that's half as powerful as a 500 pound bomb) or an Excalibur shell (which is less than half the bang of a SDB). Thus there has not been a huge demand for SDB.


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justbill    Myopic Opinion   10/22/2007 9:38:17 PM
While it's great to hear the Excalibur is finally making it to the battlefield, calling the SDB an "innovative dud" is quite short-sighted. There are many instances when the SDB will do the job artillery cannot. A few examples easily come to mind:

? Any time a target is more than ~ 40 km away from your 155 howitzers.

? Terrain or logistic shortcomings don't allow you to deploy a 28 ton M109 or 31 ton M109A6 Paladin.

? Politicians and their lapdog generals don't allow you to bring 155's to the party. (read Sean Naylor's account of    Operation Anaconda, Not A Good Day To Die, for more details)

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EricTheRed       10/22/2007 11:05:09 PM
Can you please be a little more accurate with the math?  The article states that missiles have a little less than half of their weight in warhead. TOW- 50lb and 13lb warhead? Hellfire 100lb and 20lb? Viper Strike 44 and 4? LG 2.75's 25lbs and 6lbs? Seems more like between 11 and 25 percent. Much less than half, not a little.  ETR
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elp       10/22/2007 11:58:06 PM
Sorry. Your article is off. Your understanding of what the mission of the F-22 will be is off also. SDB tossed from an F-22 up high is going to go 60 miles or more depending on altitude and the speed of the toss. The goal of this combo is high risk SEAD/DEAD. F-22 won't be doing minor work. It is for deep interdiction/high risk targets taking over the mission of the F-117. After all, once large area SAMs and enemy fighters are subdued, you don't really need this aircraft as much.

-Air Domination
-Deep high risk strike
-High risk SEAD/DEAD
-High risk ISR

The SDB rack is the BRU-61/A. It holds 4 SDBs.  It is required as of now. The BRU-61/A weighs in at 320lbs. Each GBU-39/B SDB weighs 285lbs.(not 250) Total weight for 4 weapons and rack are 1460lbs.

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neutralizer       10/23/2007 6:03:59 AM
The story is spot on (to coin a phrase) whereas the comments entirely miss the point.
The point is that army wants the effects in the right place, often close to own troops, at the right time (for troops in contact that often means within minutes).  Air delivery is not very good at the latter, one of the strange realities is that the guys moving at hundreds of knots seem to have a poorer appreciation of the importance of time than the guys on foot!  What's more armies are generally most interested in close support tasks, and in places like Afg there aren't too many of other sort.   Depth fire where it isn't time critical can safely be left to the airforce, when it is time critical them GMLRS is the biz, currently 70km range, 100km expected in not too long.  GMLRS warhead seems to be conveniently 'compound  busting' size for Afg.
Towed 155mm exist, M777 being notably light weight and deployable by heli if the terrain is too difficult.  Some will argue that the real deficiency is the lack of a smart 105mm shell.  No doubt this will emerge in due course.  UK has recently issued a requirement for a loitering smart munition operated by artillery.
Some 25 years ago a prescient infantryman asked a question at a presentation in London: 'why do we need expensive aircraft to deliver smart munitions, why not just fire them on rockets from the back of a truck'.  This commmon sense reality seems to be coming to fruition.  All we need now is some Chinese innovation to reduce the production costs, no doubt Hizbollah will be early customers!
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justbill    Spot on?   10/23/2007 12:48:13 PM
You're missing the point entirely. A guided artillery shell is great for the ground troops. I'm happy to see they're finally getting it after quite a long wait. But Excalibur's strengths do not mitigate the strengths of SDB. This article's premise that SDB is an "innovative dud" is flawed from the outset. It's like saying an M1 Abrams is a dud compared to an M3 Bradley. Both have missions that overlap somewhat but each has strengths the other doesn't. Relying on one at the expense of the other is foolish. So too is calling the SDB an "innovative dud."
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doggtag    just because we haven't needed its full capability yet...   10/23/2007 1:41:09 PM
...doesn't mean we won't need it sometime in the near future.
How is the SDB then any different than something like the F-22?
There isn't an aircraft out there today that could trounce the best USAF pilot in the latest-AMRAAM-equipped C-Eagle,
yet we have decided to be better safe than sorry and invest in the enhanced capabilities the F-22 will offer us.
Same can be said for the SDB: its phenomenal glide range when released from altitude (compared to the glide ranges of JDAMs and many LGBs) will be something much appreciated in the future, should we ever have to contend with a country with a large IADS network. The stand off feature of SDBs will lend themselves much more credibly than the relatively short ranges of other precision bombs that lack efficient glide wings.
I still, personally, think we should be making larger SDB variants, in effect 500+ pound JDAMs with built in glide kits, solely to exploit the stand off capability as much as possible (a 2000-pounder with a 50+km glide range...mmm, nice!).
As for the lighter stuff that's more infantry friendly, yeah I think they should have all the seconds-to-respond PGMs they can get their hands on (or pay for, at least), be it Excaliburs, or PGMMs, or DAGR/LOGIR/APKWS/NetFires/ViperStrikes or whatever.
Anything that says "Help is just under a minute away", because having to wait several minutes for an aircraft to gets its PGMs near enough to your position could seem like an eternity if you're coming under fire and need suppression/ass-covering real fast, right now.
I'm also in that boat of, "where's the 105mm PGMs?"
We've already got several models of 120mm guided mortar rounds in the works (PGMM, Bussard, Strix, etc), 5" guided naval rounds, and the UK even had that Merlin 81mm guided mortar round. Expensive maybe, but the advantages precision fires will offer troops in danger close confrontations outweighs the expense, especially if it's your ass on the line needing the cover fires.
Do we need every PGM developed for close range work to be $50,000+ munitions?
Hell no.
It just takes ingenuity to come up with the most cost effective designs.
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Sabre       10/26/2007 6:02:45 PM
You're missing the point entirely. A guided artillery shell is great for the ground troops. I'm happy to see they're finally getting it after quite a long wait. But Excalibur's strengths do not mitigate the strengths of SDB. This article's premise that SDB is an "innovative dud" is flawed from the outset. It's like saying an M1 Abrams is a dud compared to an M3 Bradley. Both have missions that overlap somewhat but each has strengths the other doesn't. Relying on one at the expense of the other is foolish. So too is calling the SDB an "innovative dud."

I gotta agree with neutralizer.  If you have troops on the ground, in close contact, you can also almost always have at least a battery of M777's nearby to support them (now, if the politicians are too dense to allow it... then that is disgraceful).  Arty is all-weather, 24-hour, low response time, low-cost (compared to an F22)... and a triple-7 doesn't need to refuel.  I won't call SDB an "innovative dud", but some have the opinion that SDB makes Excalibur redundant, and that is dangerous (from this Army guy's viewpoint).
I can't think of a single reason why I would bother to call in an Air Force jet with SDB's, when I could put in a CFF to the local arty battery, if I had the choice.  (Ok, the only reason I could come up is if I wanted some eyes in the sky to tell me what was going on, but with the proliferation of UAV's down to the unit-level...)
If the USAF wants to lob "golden BB's" at targets hundreds of kilometers distant, that the intel guys think that they have right, then by all means, have fun with the SDB...
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justbill       10/27/2007 10:28:23 PM
I'm fairly certain that Capt. Nathan Self would've loved to have SDB support on Takur Gar. He and his men probably would've left that hellish outcropping with at least two KIA's less than they did. Just one of many instances when artillery was no where to be found.
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